LONDON (Reuters) - Britain played down a report on Thursday that Iran masterminded the kidnapping in Iraq of a British man held hostage for more than 2-1/2 years, saying there was no firm evidence of direct Iranian involvement.
The Guardian newspaper said computer expert Peter Moore and his four bodyguards were snatched in an operation led by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The newspaper said its year-long investigation also found that Moore, who was released on Wednesday, and his guards were taken to Iran within a day of being kidnapped by militants in Baghdad in May 2007.
Three of the bodyguards were killed, and the British government says a fourth is also likely to be dead.
Citing senior officials in Iraq and Iran, the paper said Moore was seized because his computing work would have shown that vast amounts of aid money flowing into Iraq were being diverted to Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq.
The Iranian government was not immediately available for comment but Iranian state television said of the Guardian report “this claim was part of a psychological war against Iran.”
Friction between Britain and Iran has increased because of a dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and British calls on Iran to respect human rights. Iran’s foreign minister threatened Britain with a “slap in the mouth” this week.
The BBC reported on Thursday that when its security correspondent asked U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus -- the top commander in the region -- this month about the possibility of the hostages being held in Iran, he replied: “I‘m absolutely certain. I‘m 90 percent certain.”
The British foreign ministry told Reuters there was nothing to substantiate the newspaper’s report that Iran had orchestrated the operation, and played down the report that the hostages had been taken to Iran immediately after being seized.
”We can’t be absolutely sure where they were for every single one of the days of their two and a half years of captivity.
“But we are pretty clear there is no firm evidence that links Iran directly with the kidnappings -- it is not an avenue that we have been aware of,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
“All the evidence we have, and we have worked on this for a very long time, does not suggest direct involvement,” she added.
British officials have said they believe a Shi‘ite militant group called Asaib al-Haq, or Leagues of Righteousness, may have been behind the kidnapping.
Shi‘ite cleric Qais al-Khazali, believed to be a senior Asaib al-Haq member, was transferred on Wednesday from U.S. custody in Iraq to that of Iraqi authorities, but the British government denied any deal had been done for Moore’s release.
The Guardian quoted an unnamed former Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer as saying the kidnap was masterminded by Iran and carried out by the al-Quds force, a unit that specializes in foreign operations on behalf of Iran.
“It was an Iranian kidnap, led by the Revolutionary Guards, carried out by the al-Quds force,” the former Revolutionary Guards major told the paper.
“My contact works for al-Quds. He took part in the planning of the kidnap and he watched the kidnapping as it was taking place. He told me that they spent two days at the Qasser Shiereen camp (just inside Iran). They then took them deep inside Iran.”
A serving unnamed Iraqi government minister with close links to Iran backed his version of events.
“You don’t think for a moment that those militia groups from Sadr City could have carried out a high-level kidnapping like this one?” he is quoted as telling the paper.
Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; editing by Adrian Croft and Tim Pearce